Monday, May 25, 2009

Deleuze, Bacon, and Macroeconomics

Yesterday I went to the Met's new exhibit to hear some dopey Englishman who pretends to be an art critic fuck Bacon's dead corpse like it were Kyle Minogue on a reality show.  I violently dislike people who try to drag art through the muck and turn it into a sordid little secret puzzle about who traumatized who.  If biographical detail about the artist actually helps us get into the art and experience it more fully, great, if not, then I don't care how many pairs of women's panties the guy owned.  The worst is that this longtime 'friend' of Bacon's started of by saying how Bacon was very careful to manage what he said in public regarding his life because he felt that the surest way to ruin the experience of a painting was to try to reduce every one of them to a family portrait.  So the artist explicitly warned about reading narrative into his works, explicitly sought to avoid it on the canvas and in the art tabloids, and yet he's not dead 20 years and we've got this celebrity vulture of haut-couture betraying the man.  Revolting.

But the exhibit is worth seeing.  And the roof garden afterwards was fun and vastly more rewarding than the lecture ...

I got interested in Bacon because I knew he was Deleuze's favorite painter.  His paintings hold a central place in the classes he gave about painting, and in fact, the way Bacon paints really stands in for the art of painting in general in those lectures.  The key concept that Deleuze developed there was something he called the diagram.  The idea was that a canvas is not about the visible forms that you see once it is finished, but about the process by which those forms came into being.  He meant this in the double sense of the actual process of laying paint on the canvas (and he goes into some detail about the history of the way canvases (or stone) were prepared since the time of the Egyptians) and of the way that the image of what you are trying to paint develops as you go on painting it and gradually revealing it to yourself.  Basically, Bacon started by painting some image from a photo and then gradually transforming it as he worked.  The distorted and overlapping forms you encounter at the end of this process are in some sense arbitrary, as the point of the painting is to somehow capture the themselves invisible forces that were working to transform the form he started with.

We can debate whether this is a good description of painting in general (really just a question of whether it makes painting enter our lives a little more fully) but I find that it definitely helps when looking at Bacon.  He was really drawing diagrams and almost making very abstract charts and graphs, which also helps to account for the strange geometric framework that appears in every single painting.  Some of the later stuff even includes small arrows that point to ... well .. they don't really point to anything at all, and the idea would be that they point to hidden singularities that define the forces that will shape the forms in just the way that a gene might shape the outcome of a developmental process.  Pointing at a particular key gene in an embryo would look just as weird. 

The whole idea is classic Deleuze, and if you wanted to sum up his philosophy in a soundbite you would look in this direction -- there is no such thing as a thing; all things are semi-stable forms that are the outcome of dynamic processes; the important thing to do is to follow the logic of these processes, to discover how they combine, and try to understand how very different looking forms might actually be just two stages of the same process, or examples of the same set of forces working themselves out under different conditions.  Every-thing is a process, so there is no-thing; only everything is.  Good formula ¿no?

Obviously, this applies very well to macroeconomics.  In pretending to be a science, macroeconomics patterned itself on physics and got very obsessed with some simple forms -- their atom, the perfectly rational homo economicus, and their picture of a utopian market, magically sitting at perfect equilibrium.  Somewhere along the way it forgot that both these forms have to be produced somehow.  The purportedly rational humans through and evolutionary and social process, and the market through an institutional, technological and political process.  They took their forms too seriously and forget to understand that those forms were just one possible semi-stable resolution of the forces that animate an economy.  Economics forgot about history.

A better version of macroeconomics would look more like Bacon's paintings.  It would stop worrying about predicting what will happen next quarter (which is never managed to do very well anyway) and start trying to illuminate what forces are pushing on the system at any given point.  It would help us draw a diagram

Take our current situation with those camel-fuckers in Shenzen.  We have a clear problem set out in terms of forces -- they are saving and producing and we are spending to consume it.  The resulting trade and payments imbalance has to work itself out somehow, and what macroeconomics might help us to do is to see what different forms of economic organization these forces might produce.  The forces define the problem and you have to somehow figure out what forms will be compatible solutions, which different forms can coexist as solutions, and which cannot occupy the same world at the same time, even though they would also be valid solutions in other circumstances.

I would defend macroeconomic thinking from this perspective, even though I realize that to turn it into a science, you would have to attach some numbers to those diagrams.

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